Are You Scared of the Synod?

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At least in Portugal, news of the preparatory document for the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 on the topic family arrived on mainstream radio stations as:

 “The Pope is asking Catholics what they think of topics such as homosexuality and divorce.”

“The Church will have a Synod to reevaluate its position on topics such as birth control.”

And my reaction was, “Whaaaaat? No, this certainly cannot be right.” Yet uneasiness settled into my stomach, as I imagined what a “general poll” of these very, very touchy yet essentially vital subjects could do to the Church. And an even stranger queasiness set in when I tried to imagine the intentions of our Pope.

            In the first place, this is not a “general poll” as I was pleased to discover. Nor is it asking about people’s opinions on doctrine and whether it should be changed. The Preparatory Document is a survey that will be handled at the diocesan level, and each conference of bishops can decide how it will be handled.

The Preparatory Document clearly states in its first part that the family as the first cell of society is in dire need of pastoral assistance. “The well-being of the individual person and of human and Christian society is intimately linked with the healthy condition of that community produced by marriage and family” (Gaudium et Spes, 47). The family being so much at risk puts all of society at risk. The second paragraph in the Preparatory Document does not cite the “modern family” as something better or different than the “traditional family”, but cites the radical changes in family that have been largely accepted as concerns, which are urgent enough to justify two synods back to back:

“Concerns which were unheard of until a few years ago have arisen today as a result of different situations, from … cohabitation … to same-sex unions between persons, who are, not infrequently, permitted to adopt children … mixed or inter-religious marriages; the single-parent family; polygamy; … forms of feminism hostile to the Church; migration and the reformulation of the very concept of the family; relativist pluralism in the conception of marriage; … an increase in the practice of surrogate motherhood (wombs for hire); and new interpretations of what is considered a human right.”

It makes sense for the Church to address practically and pastorally the crises of our time. The Nicene Creed was largely developed to clarify beliefs against Arianism in the 4th century and councils were convened many times to counter other heresies. The counter-reformation was an entire movement of the Catholic Church reacting to the separation of Protestants. We have beautiful doctrine about the family and our nature of love… but how is the Church really unpacking this and helping people live and understand it, while facing these pressing concerns? It’s an important question to ask.

Part two of the Preparatory Document cites many Church documents where doctrine on the family can be found. There is a fundamental difference between doctrine and discipline. Doctrine is a teaching that relates to faith and morals and that does not change… no matter what. We don’t believe that God wants to confuse us or make us guess about essential matters to our salvation. Instead, we believe that God makes those clear and we can count on their trustworthy interpretation by the Church throughout the centuries. No man, including the Pope, makes up doctrine. Doctrine is revealed and can be developed throughout time, but not changed. It is contained in the Bible and in the Tradition handed down by the apostles and their Successor. John Paul II’s series of talks popularly called “Theology of the Body” are based on Scripture and early Church teachings, and were written to explain the reasons behind the encyclical Humanae Vitae. The Pope can expound doctrine, but not make it up. A discipline, on the other hand, helps the faithful live out their faith and can be changed, such as abstaining from meat on Fridays for example.

Archbishop Bruno Forte explained in a press conference about the document:

“It is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently … the invitation deriving from this for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call”.

You can look to the very Catechism of the Catholic Church for doctrine on marriage (CCC 1601), homosexuality (CCC 2357) and birth control (CCC 2366 and 2370). Look to John Paul II’s lifetime of documents including Theology of the Body Wednesday audiences (1979-1984), Letter to Women (1995), Letter to Families (1994), Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981), Evangelium Vitae (1995); Humanae Vitae by Pope Paul VI (1968); documents from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith on homosexuality and bioethical questions; and documents from the Pontifical Council for the Familiy. Now is a good time to know, live and teach what the Church’s Truth about the family is and why it is so crucial for our times.

The questions addressed to local Churches in the Preparatory document are of a practical and pastoral nature. They ask, “What is being done to help people understand Church’s teachings? What is being done to help people live Church’s teachings?” I hope this aid includes helping faithful and prayerful spouses who are open to life. Yet it is also understandable that the Church need to reach out to people in other situations. The Church points the way of love that Christ taught and calls all to conversion.

So… are you still scared of the Synod? I’m not anymore. The truth is, if it had been John Paul II (whom I consider specifically gifted and with a vocation for family pastoral concerns), I would be spinning cartwheels. I don’t know Pope Francis as well and I have no idea what will happen in terms of the Church’s practical response to families in need. However, I trust the Holy Spirit will guide its Church and St. Peter’s successor. Let’s do our part and pray for the family, speak up for the family and most importantly live as family. I’ll finish off with some of Pope Francis’s own words from his encyclical:

The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan. Lumen Fidei, n. 52

Julie Machado

Julie Machado

Julie Machado is a 30-year-old wife, mother and Portuguese-American who grew up in California, but moved to Portugal for college and has been there ever since. She has a degree in Theology from the Catholic University of Lisbon and has special interest in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. She blogs at Marta, Julie e Maria.

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5 thoughts on “Are You Scared of the Synod?”

  1. Avatar

    I’m glad to see that you are getting over your anxiety about Pope Francis. I see a similar anxiety in many Catholic blogs. One of them (admittedly an extreme) even claims that Pope Benedict XVI was the last valid Pope. The anxiety-prone seem to have their own litmus tests for a Pope. In pre-blog days, Pope John XXIII, soon to be canonized, evoked the same litmus anxiety. The thing is, the Holy Spirit blows where He will and is not concerned in the least about litmus tests. I myself am looking forward to the pastoral renewal that Pope Francis seems to be leading. I hope the whole church will enthusiastically embrace it.

  2. Avatar

    Very well written article that has sparked my interest in learning more and paying close attention to this as it moves forward. I am concerned that a major new direction could be made in some of the teachings of the Church, just as were done when the U.S. Bishops changed the direction of the original pro-life movement by bringing so called “social justice” issues under the roof of “pro-life,” a structure created to end legal abortion with a Constitutional Right to Life Amendment, some 12 years earlier. The new name for this change was “The Consistent Ethic of Life, ” also known as the “Seamless Garment.”

    However, there was one statement made in this article that I would challenge and that is: “Doctrine is revealed and can be developed throughout time, but not changed. It is contained in the Bible and in the Tradition handed down.” I think JPII did change doctrine dealing with capital punishment by “making up something” concerning the ability of keeping society protected from further harm. He based his “new teaching” on an assumption that is contrary to the facts of the issue, which are, there are ways criminal activity can still endanger people in society outside the prison walls, and have even resulted in murders, perpetrated by capital offenders being held in high tech prisons in solitary confinement with no access to other prisoners. “Operation Black Widow” concerned a $5 million dollar, 3 year federal, state and local police investigation of Pelican Bay Prison, the newest high tech prison in California, which resulted in a 25 count indictment of 13 prisoners in solitary confinement for murder, robbery, drug running – all occurring outside the prison walls.

    1. Avatar

      I agree, this is a very well-written article! It definitely clarified some things for me concerning the synod. With regard to the survey and the appeal to a “sensus fidelium” and getting a view from the whole Church, I was reminded of what our Pope Emeritus Benedict said on this topic a little less than a year ago. This was in a speech he gave to the International Theological Commission (link: I think this is in line with much of what Julie wrote because we’re not talking about changing doctrine here:

      “[Sensus Fidelium] is not some kind of public opinion of the Church, and it is unthinkable to mention it in order to challenge the teachings of the Magisterium, this because the sensus fidei can not grow authentically in the believer except to the extent in which he or she fully participates in the life of the Church, and this requires a responsible adherence to her Magisterium.”

      One final point on the death penalty: I did not think Blessed John Paul II was “making up something” concerning the ability of society being protected from harm. What he said, in my opinion, was quite consistent with the Tradition of the Church. Are you referring to what he said in Evangelium Vitae?

      Indeed, as you said, he affirms that punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” (EV #56). But, in the very next paragraph, he quotes from the latter part of CCC #2267, which I will quote in full here to give context:

      “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

      If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

      Let me know what you think! Thanks again for the commenters and Julie for writing this.

      1. Avatar

        “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect
        people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such
        means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the
        common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

        The U.S. bishops are promoting and supporting efforts to end capital punishment based on what is written above without making any effort to learn the facts about “if, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety….” What are those “non-lethal means” that are “sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety?” Where are the studies that support their belief that the public is protected from any further harm by such people? The bottom line I take away from the Operation Black Widow investigation is stated by federal prosecutors, penal system Directors, FBI and local police chiefs that solitary confinement in a glass wall cell supervised 24-7 with only 1 hour a day, alone, in a private exercise area in a modern prison is not full proof enough to prevent such confinement from protecting the outside world from any further danger from such people who have nothing to fear from anybody and nothing but time on their hands.

        In addition, sense when did the Church determine no actions by anybody, no matter how horrific, justify capital punishment? Does the Church think capital punishment doesn’t deter murders? Does the Church think that progressive punishment determined by the crime committed is not appropriate; i.e., the worse the crime the worse the punishment?

      2. Avatar

        Yeah, the difficulty here is with the issue of just and proportionate punishment.

        This is a necessity; yet there are crimes so heinous that if one is to enact punishment which is plausibly proportionate, then either the punishment for the heinous crime must be capital, or else the punishments for far less-serious crimes ought to be drastically reduced.

        It is difficult to see how a person on a third-strike non-violent narcotics bust could get decades in prison, and have a person guilty of a spree of dozens of kidnappings, rapes, and torture-killings of children over a ten-year period get life…which is to say, decades in prison.

        It is also important that Christians, Catholic and otherwise, not mistake just punishment for either vengeance or a lack of forgiveness. One can dispassionately desire justice and proportionate sentences without being swept up in a passion for vengeance. Nor is a prudent desire for justice the same thing as a lack of forgiveness. They’re wholly separate matters: We ought to be better catechized than to confuse them!

        One can, and good Christ-followers often do, acknowledge abstractly and intellectually that execution is fitting punishment for such heinous crimes as I have described above, while still desiring very much the best possible good for the guilty party. The mother of the guilty man may be entirely convinced he did it, entirely supportive of capital punishment, and yet entirely desiring the best possible good for her son.

        So too with the families of the victims. They can indeed say to the guilty party: “We forgive you. We hope for the salvation of your soul. Despite the pain you have caused us, we hope that we will meet in Heaven, for that will mean that the evil you have done will have been truly erased in the most complete way” …and STILL support his execution because That Is The Just And Appropriate Punishment.

        And indeed, I think it may be the best hope of salvation for the condemned man, provided he has adequate access to a priest who will exhort him to repentance. There is nothing like oncoming death to focus the mind of a man on eternal questions.

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